views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

The Rite of Spring/Romeo & Juliet
The Blue Elephant Theatre
25th April 2014

★★★★★

The Rite of Spring/Romeo & Juliet

Photography © Lidia Crisafulli

As a general rule, Romeo & Juliet is to theatre what My Heart Will Go On is to pop music. The first time was stunning, but ten squillion performances later, it just doesn't grab you in the same way. Greatest love story or not, over-fqmiliir)ty can be the death of something beautiful. However, Concert Theatre, in association with Trestle Theatre, have taken Shakespeare's well-known tale, fused it with Stravinsky's concert piece The Rite of Spring, and created something truly breathtaking and original. If you think you've seen every possible way of adapting Romeo & Juliet, let this talented group of people surprise you.

Accomplished pianist and co-director An-Ting Chang has teamed up with Lecoq-trained co-director Russell Bender in an inspired collaboration. The music is integral to the show, with Chang herself and another fine pianist, Arabella Pare, playing The Rite of Spring live on stage in four-hands. The instrument is in the the middle of all the action, encased in a wooden frame which allows the performers to push it around and climb on top - the musicians are never hidden away in some pit, or kept in the wings, they are as much a part of the show as the actors. Their playing is not only technically brilliant, but intense and emotional.

Commedia half-masks created by Trestle Theatre are used to completely distort the actors' faces, with exaggerated eyes and cheekbones evoking a type of grotesque. The actors do make sounds - they snigger and gasp - but they never actually speak, and when combined with the restriction of the masks, this means they have to use the whole of their bodies to express themselves. It's a very physical delivery, and this is where Bender's influence on the piece is the strongest.

This a visually striking production, with black and white lines marking the divide between the Montagues and the Capulets. Mila Sanders reflects this in her set as well as in her costumes, with the Montagues predominantly in black and the Capulets predominantly in white. However, each character wears elements of both - Romeo (Ben Hadley) and Juliet (Dorie Kinear) in particular wearing clothes which mirror the other's. The design shows the inherent tragedy that there is more common ground than the two warring families realise - to use a hackneyed idiom, they really are cut from the same cloth.

The Rite of Spring/Romeo & Juliet

Photography © Lidia Crisafulli

Much of the performance is overblown, with plenty of comedy mixed into this devised piece, but there are some more tender moments too. There are very few times where the actors remove their masks, with this making those scenes all the more poignant - the young lovers meeting for the first time, their hand-fasting, their wedding night - there's a pure and honest sentiment which hangs in the air as the masks fall and the music suddenly disappears. It's as if the rest of the world disappears and all that is left is love.

A few liberties have been taken with the story - well, to get this down to an hour, it's entirely understandable - but all the essential elements are there. From the Montagues sneaking into the big party, the fight between Tybalt (Monika Lindeman) and Mercutio (Nectarios Theodorou), to Friar Laurence (Alex Lehman) racing futilely to find Romeo, it's all recognisable, and yet you're seeing an old story through a completely different perspective.

It's an enormous shame that the run at the Blue Elephant is so short, because this is an immensely exciting piece of theatre. As for the show itself, once it leaves Camberwell, it will tour until June, with only a brief return to in and around London in the second week of May. If it doesn't sell out on each night of its tour, there's really no justice - this is fringe theatre at its finest.

The Rite of Spring/Romeo & Juliet ran from 23rd to 26th April 2014 at the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Oval (Northern)



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